Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Ceisteanna (1, 2, 3)

Joan Burton

Ceist:

1. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach to set down the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department to date in 2019; and the number of requests fully and partially refused, respectively. [16349/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach to set down the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department in 2018; and the number of requests granted, partially granted and refused. [17456/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach to set down the number of freedom of information requests received by his Department in 2018 and to date in 2019. [21784/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (5 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

In 2018, my Department received 490 freedom of information, FOI, requests. Of these, 111 were granted, 243 were part granted, 46 were refused and no records were held in respect of 70 of the requests. A total of 20 requests were either transferred, withdrawn or handled outside of the Freedom of Information Act. From January until the end of April this year, my Department received 205 FOI requests. Of these, 36 were granted, 74 were part granted, seven were refused and no records were held in respect of 32 other requests. A further 56 requests are still ongoing or were withdrawn, handled outside the freedom of information framework or transferred to another public sector body.

There has been an increase in the number of FOI requests received in my Department since the new Freedom of Information Act came into operation in 2014. In 2013, my Department received 92 requests. This figure rose to 290 in 2015 and 490 in 2018, which constitutes a fivefold increase in five years and the upward trend is continuing this year.

Records may be part granted or refused. Material is redacted for a variety of reasons, as provided for in the Freedom of Information Act. Examples of grounds commonly used by FOI decision-makers in my Department for withholding material include: where Government records less than five years old are concerned; where the material, if released, could have an adverse impact on the international relations or the economic interests of the State; where commercially sensitive information is involved; or where it is necessary to withhold personal information, such as personal email addresses or mobile telephone numbers.

The majority of requests submitted to my Department are non-personal requests from the media. All requests received in my Department are processed by designated officials in accordance with the Freedom of Information Acts. If a requester is not satisfied with an FOI decision, he or she can seek an internal review, followed by appeal to the Information Commissioner. The freedom of information statutory framework keeps the decision-making process at arm's length from the political head of the Department. I have no role in the decision-making process for requests received in my Department nor do I see copies of decision letters issuing. Notwithstanding this and the fact I am not even asked, I keep reading in the newspapers that I have refused to release X, Y or Z.

Two members of staff work in the Department's freedom of information unit, both of whom perform other duties. Staff from across the Department are also involved in processing requests in addition to their routine duties, for example, in respect of searching and retrieving records and making decisions on requests received. At times, complicated and detailed FOI requests are received that involve significant time and resource implications for the staff involved. Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act 2014 requires each FOl body to prepare and publish a publication scheme. My Department's scheme is published on the gov.ie website and sets out a range of information about the type of records it holds.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. He will recall that the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act was one of a suite of transparency reform measures introduced, and it is very important. Other measures included the Freedom of Information Act, the Protected Disclosures Act, which was to protect whistleblowers, and the Regulation of Lobbying Act, so that we know who is lobbying the Government or senior public officials and to what end.

It was understood that there would be a significant increase in applications once we made the amendments. They were made to allow for additional freedom of information requests because the Act at that point was so restrictive. Nevertheless, there are some grounds for concern. The Taoiseach has given the figures. There has been a 500% increase in FOI requests in his Department. That would have been expected because we facilitated it and public transparency was the objective of the exercise.

Last year's findings by the Information Commissioner indicated an unacceptably high response time for FOI requests, and that is concerning.

Is the Taoiseach monitoring these issues himself? Does the transparency of Government concern him and is he looking at these issues? I was very anxious to drive the reform agenda as an intrinsic part of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and I presume that is where it still lies.

I refer to perception. Less than two years ago a European Commission report found that 86% of Irish people think corruption is a major problem, which is an extraordinary figure, and more than 30% of Irish companies said they believed they had lost out on a public contract due to corruption. In essence, we need to not only deal with the reality but also deal with the perception, and complete transparency and openness is the way to do that. Does the Taoiseach take a hands-on view of these matters and will he give me an assurance that the reforms that were brought in will be reviewed to see if we need to go further?

Over the past number of months there have been two landmark cases concerning the Freedom of Information Act in the Court of Appeal and the High Court. Those cases, one involving UCC and the other involving Enet, fundamentally undermine the principles of the Act, and have far-reaching consequences when it comes to freedom of information, FOI. Freedom of information is crucial for any functioning democracy, and the information obtained through FOI requests has served the public interest in shining a light on serious social and political issues in recent years. The starting point should always be a presumption in favour of disclosure and that amending legislation should be introduced if necessary. Without the circulation of information regarding public bodies, good and transparent governance is impossible. Does the Taoiseach believe the Information Commissioner should appeal these judgments to the Supreme Court? Will he support, if necessary, the introduction of legislation to deal with issues that have arisen in these cases to get us back to a position where proper disclosure is a priority?

Since the FOI legislation was introduced in 1997, it has had a positive impact in providing the public with an opportunity to see behind the Government. The great benefit of it is that it ensures the public can see the reality of what is occurring as opposed to what the Government wants to present itself as dealing with. It has been beneficial legislation. I acknowledge it makes life uncomfortable for civil servants and in many respects, civil servants may have changed their methods of doing work as a result of the Freedom of Information Act. Nonetheless, it is useful legislation.

I am conscious of the recent decision by the courts, mentioned by Deputy Quinlivan. They are significant decisions, but I do not know whether the Taoiseach will be able to answer as to whether they should be appealed. We need to ensure that we do not allow the rights available to both citizens and journalists under the Act to be eroded. I am also conscious, however, that the Government should try to disclose to the public the actuality of what is happening in government as opposed to waiting for journalists or members of the public to come along and make FOI requests. It is hard to ignore the fact that in recent days there has been a blizzard of announcements from Departments. A cynic might suggest that this is to do with the forthcoming local elections, but I am sure the Taoiseach will disabuse me of that notion. We should be able to get the papers out as to why all of these announcements were made in the run-up to the local elections. We also had the unusual announcement from the European Commission recently about some funding for Irish farmers. It, again, seems unusual that such an announcement would be made in the run-up to the EU elections, but I am sure the Taoiseach will disabuse me of those concerns. If we got the papers out, there would be no difficulty in establishing what the truth is.

Deputy Howlin gave examples of some progressive legislation introduced by the previous Government - often by himself as Minister - relating to FOI, protected disclosures and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015. In time, people will see how progressive that legislation was, and many people now look to us as an example or world leader when it comes to some of that legislation, particularly around lobbying. It is not perfect, but no legislation ever is, and we will need to amend it as we go along. Other example of reforms put in place by the previous Government that are worthy of mention are further restrictions on political and corporate donations, and spending limits on local elections, which had not existed previously.

Stamping out corruption and the perception of corruption is something in which I take a personal interest. We produced a white-collar crime and anti-corruption package approximately two years ago, and we review its implementation on an ongoing basis. Some of it is legislative, involving legislation on money laundering and corruption. We are also transforming the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, ODCE, into a much stronger body. Rather than being an office of the Department, it will be a stand-alone agency in its own right and will be a much tougher, much better resourced body, which will be able to pursue and prosecute white-collar crime. On foot of the planning tribunals, we will also bring in an independent planning regulator.

My general approach is to be transparent with requests as much as I can. If something is published on a Department's website, there is no need for an FOI request, and no need for anyone to claim it is some sort of big reveal when they are issued with a rather mundane document. That is why information on expenses, Government jet use and so on are regularly issued, rather than needing to be subject to an FOI request.

I was asked my opinion on a few judgments, but I have not read them so it is probably better that I do not express an opinion on them. It is, of course, up to the Information Commissioner to take an appeal should he choose to do so.

Regarding the procedures to deal with FOI request used by my Department, we follow the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's code of practice in dealing with FOI requests, and I am satisfied that the Department is following the code. It is a long-standing practice that successive taoisigh, including myself, as political heads of the Department, have no role whatsoever in processing FOI requests. When one reads in the papers that I refused to release something or tried to block its release, that is always untrue. Every request received under FOI is assigned to the FOI unit and the decision-maker in the relevant section of the Department. The functions of general examination and primary decision-making have been delegated to assistant principal officers, and a few administrative officers, AOs, or higher executive officers, HEOs, in specialist areas who do this in addition to their normal duties. The function of internal review has been delegated to officials of not below principal officer grade, and all requests are monitored by the Department's liaison officer.

Replies are sometimes issued outside of the normal four-week deadline, and this can happen for a variety of reasons. Some involve a large number of records, and third parties are sometimes involved who have to be consulted. In many instances ,the deadline is extended by modest periods by agreement with the requesters, for example, when the decision-maker is busy attending other duties, or for pressure of work reasons. My Department is committed to meeting its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, including responding to FOI requests within the specified time frames, and it makes every effort to ensure that the volume of late replies is kept to a minimum.